The problem with hairy women

Body hair is a potent subject. However banal the hairs may seem, they also carry explosive qualities within them. Lesnik-Oberstein calls this ‘the problematic double bind’ of body hair: it is simultaneously understood as ‘too little’ and ‘too much’ as a topic of serious research.[1] When I did the three body hair films, it became clear that body hair is anything but innocent. Body hair create reactions – reactions of disgust, anger, laughter and surprise. How come we feel so strongly about something all of us live (relatively) peacefully with in our everyday life?

Body hairs are abject, because they transgress the boundaries of subject and object – the border between the self and the world. Not me, neither outside of me. As infants, we affirm our egos when we expel our mother from the symbiosis. As adults, we continue to reaffirm this border between self and other psychologically, when we expel bodily materials.[2] Therefore, psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva argues that floating breastmilk, sweat, tears and body hair have universal monstrous qualities for the human unconscious: It exposes a fragility between the self and the other, threatening to destroy the boundary between subject and object, and thus the subject’s existence as different from the object.[3] In this way, body hair becomes an ever-hunted refugee, first expelled from my insides, then brutally removed with my own hands.

Likewise, in a Western context of today, female body hair is abject on a cultural level. It transgresses the categories of gender that make up our social world, where the hairless female body confirms the masculinity of a hairy male.[4] A woman with hairy legs is a “matter out of place”.[5] It is neither this nor that. It breaks the binarism that structures our cultural classificatory system. A hairy female body is a social monstrosity and a threat to the stability of society’s gender categories at large. Curiously, even though body hairs are firmly located extremely physically close to the self, on the body, they can simultaneously be socially disturbing to the extent of potentially destructive to society. In this way, the cultural regulation of female body hair becomes a lived example on how each of us are deeply affected by the culture we live in. We cannot escape culture: Even though we chose to leave our bodies in a ‘natural state’, refraining from hair removal, we do it as a choice that stands in relation to the cultural norms.

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The body can be compared to a text: hair, or the absence of hair, is like a letter that constitutes the meaning of a word. When we read a body, we try to read the visible signs we see to identify whether it is a female or male body. The cultural norms that dominate our society determinates how we interpret the signs. They are like a set of reading glasses, through which we see and understand the world. To give an example: I live in Denmark, in the second largest town, Aarhus. When we see a hairy leg here, we usually read it as a sign that this person is male. However, if other signs (such as clothing, hairstyle, tone of voice, body language) indicates that the person with the hairy legs is a ‘she’, the hairy legs can be read into a different cultural meaning. Maybe she is a ‘manhater’, or a ‘lesbian’? Maybe she is a ‘feminist’, or ‘brave’? We read these qualities into the person, because we try to make sense of why she did not remove her body hair.

Why are the hairs present, when they should be absent? Why did she not perform her gender in the appropriate manner? We want life to make sense, so we attach alternative explanations when it doesn’t. Similarly, razors for women are sold in pink or purple to add a touch of cultural femininity to the hair removal activity. It makes better sense that way. The color of pink helps to reassure and calm the woman who shaves off the hairy “man’s legs” and transform them into women’s legs. Stay cool! I am a woman, despite all the hairiness I am dealing with here. The colors add cultural meaning to the body hair, so we need to sustain our self-image as women within our interpretational framework.

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But what if we don’t like this interpretation of the world? If we think the current connection between femininity and hairlessness is too narrow and too demanding: too expensive, too painful and to time-consuming. Is it possible to support the emergences of alternative meaning?

Judith Butler argues that gender is a performance[6]. When we talk about ‘women’ and ‘men’, we talk about cultural identities. In order to be a woman, you need to do a series of aligned performances throughout your day. For example, a woman has certain interests, walks in certain ways and do certain things to her body (such as body hair removal). If every act is aligned, we can easily and peacefully make sense of the person as either ‘female’ or ‘male’. The problem arises if the performance is not aligned – then the gendered identities are troubled. Meaning becomes unstable.

Butler’s argument is that the acts of gender is what constitute gender – and there is no fixed meaning and identity behind the acts. When we misalign our performances, we open up for a resignification of what it means culturally to be a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’. For example, if a person with a male physiological characteristic wears a dress and makeup, or a person with breasts and a high-pitched voice stops shaving her legs. In other words: the answer is YES – the reading of the signs we carry on our body can change through time and place – if we dare to trouble the categories from within.

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[1] Lesnik-Obserstein, Karin. 2006. The last taboo: women, body hair and feminism. In: Lesnik-Oberstein (eds.): The last taboo. Women and body hair. Manchester University Press. Manchester and New York. Pp. 1-17

[2] In Powers of Horror (1980) psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva writes about the potency of this impossible category at the boundary of the self // Kristeva, Julia [1980]. Powers of Horror. In Oliver, Kelly (eds.) 2002: The Portable Kristeva. Columbia University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Macdonald, Alice. 2006. Hair on the lens: female body hair on the screen. In: Lesnik-Oberstein (eds.): The last taboo. Women and body hair. Manchester University Press. Manchester and New York. Pp. 66-82

[5] In classic structuralism the world is seen as consisting of classificatory systems that create mutually constituting categories and draw the boundaries between them // Douglas, Mary 1966: Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge, pp. 36

[6] Butler, Judith 1990. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, London.

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